Why the frieze The Triumph of Art and Letters is the Royal Albert Hall's crowning glory
From trains and cherubs to students and spaniels, the Albert Hall’s ‘Triumph of Art and Letters’ is a riot of Victorian Utopia, explains Rick Jones
The crowning glory of the Royal Albert Hall is the 250-metre long frieze called The Triumph of Art and Letters on the outer wall, 60 feet up. It was the final element in construction before Victoria cut the ribbon in March 1871.
Its seven Royal Academy artists shared out 16 sections and filled them with 280 life-size figures involved in artistic creativity, manufacture, construction or education. Originally it was to have been a ring of sculpted marble, but economies were necessary, and terra cotta mosaics became the more modest medium. They were put in place not by the artists but by ladies of the mosaic class at the South Kensington Museum, now known as the V&A.
What does the The Triumph of Art and Letters show?
The frieze begins above Door 6 with a scene of exotic foreigners arriving in London for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. The carved text, which runs above it noting the financial contribution made by that event to the hall’s construction, also starts here. It seems to determine the order of the sections, so that the phrase ‘advancement of the arts’ overlies the Music and Painting panel above Doors 7 and 8, the name ‘Prince Albert’ coincides with the Princes and Patrons panel above the west porch, ‘the first stone’ accompanies Workers in Stone above Doors 10 and 11 and the quote from Ecclesiastes ‘the wise and their works’ superscribes the figure of James Watt and his steam engine above Door 5.
Watt is exceptional in being identified. Most of the figures are anonymous men, women and children. Some of the men are nude like Greeks, most notably in the Mechanical Powers panel above Door 4, although to spare Victorian blushes, they have no genitals. The Triumph of Art and Letters was meant to have been the 19th century’s answer to the marble frieze that Lord Elgin ‘rescued’ from the Parthenon, one of several iconic buildings depicted in the frieze in acknowledgement by the architects of the Albert Hall that it, too, was joining their ranks. Turn the page for a guide to the frieze’s seven appointed artists and their extraordinary work.
Who were the seven artists of The Triumph of Art and Letters?
EJ POYNTER (1836-1919)
Various Nations Arrive for the Great Exhibition 1851 (Door 6)
Poynter designed the first section, in which the nations, led by cherubs, arrive in London laden with local produce for the show. Liberty leads America’s parade, having unshackled the African-American, struggling with his cotton bale. She is carrying his chains in her right hand. The Native American, who could not have foreseen how trendy his hairstyle would become, brings tobacco in a peace pipe. Poynter, later knighted, was the first Slade professor of art at University College London, and President of the Royal Academy.
EDWARD ARMITAGE (1817-1896)
Philosophers, Sages and Students (Door 3)
Armitage got the student panel, and to show what a forward-looking Victorian he was, included girls. Girton College, Cambridge, the first women’s university, was established only the year before in 1870. Note how Armitage depicts the student body in improbable rapt attention, leaning on the globe, absorbing every nugget, not lying in bed or clutching bowls of cereal. One boy, attending a lecture on fossils, is even taking notes with a quill, while demure handmaids distribute academic awards. Armitage was the official artist of the Crimean War but attracted criticism from people who felt his pictures too bloodthirsty for a civilised nation.
WF YEAMES (1835-1918)
Workers in Stone, Workers in Wood and Brick, Architecture (Doors 10 & 11)
Yeames, given Architecture, depicted St Paul’s Cathedral with Charles II and his spaniel congratulating the architect Wren. As identifiable figures, they are unusual in the frieze, which is mostly dedicated to anonymous workers. In fact, Yeames ironically features the real labourers behind the king’s back, one hauling a bucket, another constructing scaffolding. Yeames’s intention was also to place the new Hall in the context of other domed buildings shown in the frieze, including Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. English Gothic is represented by Peterborough Cathedral, the haulers and hod-carriers passing a Celtic cross before it.
HS MARKS (1829-1898)
Agriculture, Horticulture and Land Surveying, Astronomy and Navigation
(Doors 1 & 2)
Marks interpreted Agriculture, Horticulture and Land Surveying as ‘taming the land’. A surveyor shows his plans for an earthwork, but even close to, it rather looks like he is wearing a pair of false breasts. Behind him, Romans decide the fate of some captives. An imperial nation extends its boundaries and civilises populations. Marks would eventually become famous for his bird and animal paintings for which he spent hours at the newly opened London Zoo with his friend John Ruskin. The livestock here anticipates this later career. Tradition records that Galileo is the telescope tutor in the neighbouring panel, although the frieze gives no clue to this.
JC HORSLEY (1817-1903)
Engineering (Door 4)
Horsley exalted Great Britain in his Engineering panel, showing Stephenson’s Rocket steam train, three Victorian gents mapping out territory, and telegraph wires running through the panel as if visually connecting the world. He is the only one of the artists to have signed his work and dated it (1869). Just off to the side of the section pictured here, sweating miners deliver combustible rocks to a furnace. One swigs water from a beaker and mops his brow. A team handles the molten steel with sensibly long tongs. Horsley is famous for creating the first Christmas card and, significantly, denouncing contemporary paintings of the nude, a trend borrowed from the Paris salon in the 1880s, for which Punch magazine wittily nicknamed him ‘Clothes Horsley’.
HH ARMSTEAD (1828-1905)
The Mechanical Powers (Door 4)
Armstead depicts Mechanical Power through the muscular energy of men operating levers, wielding sledge hammers or powering a wine press, vulnerably in the nude. Their lack of private parts is the oddest idea in the frieze, a strange compromise between truth and modesty. Did Horsley intervene? Armstead’s admiration for the human form led him into sculpture and he was responsible for 80 of the bas relief carvings on the Albert Memorial.
FR PICKERSGILL (1820-1900)
Music, Sculpture, Painting (Doors 7 & 8), Infancy of the Arts and Sciences (above south porch), Pottery and Glass-making (Door 5)
Pickersgill was known for painting historical subjects, and here he depicts early instruments – a vihuela, a valveless trumpet, a tambour, a Celtic harp, a lute. For this reason too, perhaps, he was given the Infancy of Arts and Sciences panel, in which he shows artists decorating a boat, fashioning a reed pipe, and more. He returns to clay in the last panel, Pottery and Glass-making, in which increasingly refined objects culminate in the glass-blower’s art before Poynter comes round again.
Rick Jones is a freelance journalist and Blue Badge London tour guide. He studied singing and lute playing as a postgraduate at the Royal College of Music, before becoming a music critic and journalist. He was the chief music critic for the Evening Standard from 1992 to 2002 and now writes for titles including BBC Music Magazine, Washington Post, Sunday Times, Independent, Daily Mail and Time Out.